The alternative protein market is diversifying and growing quickly, given massive consumer and industrial demand. Today, protein from plants and microorganisms is widely used in lieu of animal protein in foodstuffs, as functional ingredients and in feed. GEA is constantly developing and adapting its processing solutions to accommodate new raw materials, with a focus on improving protein quality and yield while ensuring the efficient use of resources during production.

According to a July 2020 report from FAIRR, an international association specializing in sustainable investing, the alternative protein sector nearly doubled its 2019 investment in the first half of 2020. By their estimate, this market will grow to US$17.9 billion by 2025. In China alone, for example, pork consumption is expected to drop by roughly 35 percent during 2020.

Why alternative proteins?

Protein is a must-have for maintaining good health and meat is an excellent source of protein. However, more consumers are decreasing their meat intake, citing a greater focus on healthful living, concern for the environment, animal welfare and increased fear of zoological diseases. While meat consumption continues to rise along with the global population, alternative protein consumption is also growing – having received a significant boost as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Plants and other microorganisms convert nutrients into protein very efficiently and place less burden on our natural resources. As functional ingredients, they add texture to, as well as optimize the viscosity, emulsification, stability, foaming or fat-binding properties in diverse foodstuffs. In feed, vegetarian proteins take pressure off livestock production and aquaculture. In short, the list of applications for alternative proteins is extremely diverse, and includes for example:

  • meat-replacement products 
  • sports drinks & snack bars
  • alternative dairy beverages & infant formula
  • health supplements
  • livestock feed/ fish feed & pet food
  • functional ingredients

A plethora of raw materials to choose from

The explosion in demand for vegetarian and vegan products has led processors to develop additional protein sources – not all of them from the plant world. The most common are: 

  • legumes/pulses (e.g., peas, beans, lentils, chickpeas, nuts, quinoa)
  • single-cell protein (e.g., cultures of algae, yeasts, fungi and bacteria)

Within the alternative protein market, dry formats are the most common. Protein powder, typically concentrates or isolates, offers an extended shelf life, has a smaller physical footprint which is relevant for storage and handling and allows for greater cost and product quality control. While additional processing and filtration are required, isolates deliver more protein by weight.

Alternative protein processing pea protein

Peas, for example, contain many essential amino acids and are an excellent source of iron. Pea protein is gluten-free and hypoallergenic, making it a good option for those sensitive to soy or whey. It is commonly used in smoothies and shakes, in vegan milk products and can be mixed in cereals and baked goods to improve nutritional value. Pea extracts are also used in the production of pasta – adding nutrients to dishes – and in meat replacement products like chicken strips and nuggets, given the texture and taste of pea protein are easy to customize.

Single-cell protein (SCP) is produced via a fermentation process, and as ingredients are suitable for human consumption and for use in feed. One example is microalgae, which are high in protein, fatty acids, enzymes, vitamins and minerals. Once processed and in powder form, it can be used in supplements, vegetarian foods and beverages and many other industry applications. Another, mycoprotein, is made from naturally occurring fungus. Combined with glucose and other nutrients during a fermentation process, the result is a meat-like texture, high in protein and fiber, making it an ideal choice for meat-replacement products which are just coming onto the market.

Plant protein production – making it pay with co-products

Availability, price and protein quality all influence the choices processors make when choosing raw materials for protein extraction and manufacturing. The protein taken out of a plant, whether it’s soy or pea, might be 25 percent, and the rest starch or oil, for example. Therefore, it is the isolation and production of co-products from the side streams that adds to profitability in this industry – which of course also reduces wastage.

Each raw material has its own unique composition and properties, requiring a tailored process to separate each efficiently into its individual ingredients. Producers therefore need to consider: 

  • Is the protein being recovered the primary product or a co-product?
  • Is the raw product being utilized to its fullest extent?

Some of the most common processing scenarios are:

  • protein production with starch as co-product (peas, barley or wheat)
  • protein production with oil as co-product (soybeans, rape seed or sunflower seed)
  • starch production with protein as co-product (potatoes, corn or rice)

Starch, for example, best known for its texturizing functionalities, is widely used across the food industry, while food- and dietary fibers and non-solids can be processed for use in animal feed or food applications. By staggering production, processors can limit the effects of seasonality, improve profitability and ROI. A possible scenario is processing potatoes in late summer and fall and then switching to peas the rest of the year, given they have a longer shelf-life; often this can be achieved using the same equipment or lines.

GEA solutions for efficient, high-quality alternative protein processing

With decades of processing know-how, GEA is helping ingredients suppliers and food producers – from small start-ups, to mid-sized companies and global players – meet demands for product purity and functionality. Our portfolio covers:

  • raw materials preparation
  • protein extraction
  • isolation & purification
  • evaporation
  • drying
  • effluent treatment
  • automation systems

The full extraction process typically begins with the flour obtained from beans or seeds, for example, followed by wet processing, heat treatment and drying, with solutions integrated in the process for effluent treatment, including the reuse of water and heat.

GEA offers complete processing lines for the wet part, which includes separators and decanters for extraction, concentration, washing and protein recovery. GEA Separation experts have solved many of the common challenges associated with protein processing. To avoid foaming and improve protein yield, our decanters feature a closed design to eliminate oxygen pick-up with pressure discharge of the liquid phase. Another common issue is that fine protein flocs tend to float on top of the liquid level in the decanter bowl rather than collect at the bowl wall with the rest of the solids; in conventional decanters this leads to a loss of valuable product. The GEA protein Decanter, with its unique varipond® system, allows for adjustments to the pond depth via pressurized air, while an additional disc prevents protein flocs from leaving the bowl with the clarified liquid. Another benefit of this solution is improved cleanability of the decanter.

Decanter for recovering plant proteins

Protein decanter with GEA varipond® system maximizes protein yield

GEA works with customers to identify the specific drying technology that will consistently deliver the desired level of protein properties, including powder quality, precisely defined particle size and density, dispersion and solubility properties. Our single- and multi-stage spray dryers combine spray drying and fluid bed technology in a single plant offering high flexibility, while CIP options ensure cleaning is quick and thorough, reducing downtime. GEA solid feed dryers (flash and ring-type) are also ideal for starch, fibers, protein and co-product drying. Just as important, our drying solutions deliver on efficiency, performance, safety and hygiene requirements.

GEA dryers are designed to meet specific customer requirements, including desired final powder properties.
GEA dryers are designed to meet specific customer requirements, including desired final powder properties.

Already at the design phase, GEA can visualize how the dryer systems will behave and evaluate the consequences of design variations. This is possible thanks to GEA’s market-leading 3D virtual test bench for spray dryers – a simulation tool based on computational fluid dynamics (CFD). “Customers want a spray drying plant designed specifically for their application and that works at an optimum level. In the past, a lack of testing options and process understanding inevitably meant an element of compromise – of playing it safe. Today, with accurate and detailed virtual process testing, we can push the boundaries much further, giving customers a commercial edge in a competitive market by allowing them to develop new products safely, quickly and inexpensively,” explains Kristian M. Ingvorsen, Head of CFD at GEA.

Finally, GEA solutions for the treatment and reuse of process water and for saving energy, drive down production costs and help customers reduce their environmental footprint. This includes reducing fresh-water consumption by capturing and reusing evaporator condensate and reusing dryer vapor. Coupled with tailored automation and control systems, GEA supports customers in achieving maximum plant efficiency.

Test before you invest

Along with our diverse portfolio and industry-leading expertise, GEA offers well-developed pilot processes simulating the entire process, accounting for protein type and functionality as well as desired production capacity. The ability to develop new products, applications and formulas or find ways to add more value to existing raw materials before investing in new equipment and lines, greatly reduces the producer’s risk and means getting to market more quickly. Our customers rely heavily on our test centers and experts to ensure success and cover:

  • centrifugal separation (Germany)
  • evaporation & membrane filtration (Germany & U.S.)
  • pasteurization & aseptic filling (Germany)
  • solid feed drying & spray drying (Denmark & U.S.)   

GEA customers leave these pilots with protein samples generally suitable for pre-marketing and with the confidence knowing they will be able to achieve consistencies in yield, quality, efficiency and in machine and process performance in their own plants. In fact, many GEA process warranties are based on the results of pilots conducted with customers.

When customers visit our test centers, we show them how to run their processes step-by-step. They walk away not only with a sample of their product but also a lot of knowledge, enabling them to take important decisions about how to set up their process to achieve their desired results.”– Detlef Ullmann, Head of GEA Process Test Center, Oelde, Germany

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